I have enjoyed everything that Jennifer Egan has written and thought that A Visit from the Goon Squad was one of the best books I read that year. So, when Netgalley offered Manhattan Beach, I was pleased. Egan’s other work has been, in one way or another, experimental, but Manhattan Beach is a straightforward historical novel, to my surprise.
Anna Kerrigan is a young girl at the start of the novel in 1930’s New York. Her father, Eddie, works as a bagman for the longshoreman’s union and takes her with him on his rounds. But shortly after the start of the novel, he begins leaving her home. He does this after he takes a new job working for a gangster, Mr. Styles. Although Anna interprets this as rejection, it is to keep her safe.
Eddie does not enjoy his home life. Although he loves his wife, they have a second daughter, Lydia, who is severely handicapped. Her presence makes him feel uncomfortable, and Agnes is always trying to force him to show affection to Lydia.
Then Eddie disappears without a trace. Anna begins working to help support the family. Eventually, the story splits into two. In one, Anna becomes involved with Mr. Styles, whom she remembers visiting as a child with Eddie, and works her way into the man’s world of marine diving as part of the war effort. In the other story, we find out what happened to Eddie.
For most of this novel, I wondered where it was going. Much of it centers around Anna, Eddie, and Mr. Styles. But first it seems to wander in focus from the New York underworld to the war effort and diving to Eddie’s experiences during World War II. Although the bulk of the novel is set during the war, there is very little feeling for the period.
Overall, I was a little disappointed in Manhattan Beach. It was well written, but Egan’s previous novels sparkled with originality. Egan makes it clear in the acknowledgements that she wanted to write about New York during the period, but the period feel is just not there. She is interested in the Naval Yard, where Anna works, but I didn’t really get an idea of what it was like.